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Retraumatization and Racism: 7 Ways to Deal With It

The first anniversary of the death of George Floyd is around the corner, and likely to be in the press. Being constantly exposed to traumatic events in the media can be difficult to deal with so Dr Chandrika Patel writes about ways to cope.

Racial trauma can be caused by both direct and indirect experiences of racism in the form of microaggressions or exposure to racism via the media. This can impact on both physical and mental health leading to depression, hypervigilance, chronic stress and fatigue, bodily inflammation and symptoms similar to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). If the knee on the neck of George Floyd has symbolised how black people have felt and experienced life for centuries, it also has proved to be a reminder of   deep-rooted emotions and traumatic events to the surface for the many, culminating into retraumatization also known as secondary trauma. 

Trauma affects the brain and nervous system with feelings of shock and helplessness with fear of being victimized at any time in a world that feels unsafe. It changes brain structure and has been described as a ‘bear’ associated with the physiological reaction of confronting it, giving rise to your adrenaline and cortisol affecting brain functionality. These physiological changes are difficult to undo and living with trauma can be like living with the ‘bear.’    

Given that children are exposed to the traumatic images through social media on their smartphones, it’s important for teachers and parents to address these incidents and talk about them. Emotional stress triggered by watching / witnessing mentally and emotionally traumatizing videos repeatedly can be overwhelming. It can result in retraumatization, towards re-experiencing an original event replicating the dynamics of original trauma with feelings of loss of power/control/safety.

Coping with traumatic events for the young do not contribute to resilience but towards exacerbating the effect of the original trauma resulting in more intense reaction to another trauma impacting on their development at various levels. The long-term social and psychological effects of repeatedly witnessing traumatic events through social media have yet to be seen.

Symptoms of retraumatization can be one and more such as flashbacks, sleeplessness, anxiety, fatigue, rage, physical reactions to triggers, hypervigilance and loss of sense of purpose. It is an unconscious process, the effects of which are not always obvious. Below are tips for dealing with some of the key symptoms of retraumatization in a society built on systemic racism.

7 Tips for Dealing with Retraumatization and Racism

Tune in your Inner Guru

As trauma is about feelings of helplessness and victimization, giving people a sense of efficacy in the face of helplessness can be good. This can be in a form of feeling heard and acknowledged in safe spaces by those who listen and care. 

Riding on the wave of celebrity- activism can be a double edged sword, open to both positive and negative comments that can lead to retraumatization. Choose your audience wisely and be mindful of your energy and limitations. 

People like Me

Being disappointed when not seeing people like you in positions of power and authority can lead to feelings of retraumatization. Change takes time to happen and be mindful of your own expectations. Life doesn’t owe you anything. 

Hyper vigilance

Link between racism and PTSD means that feelings of anxiety can cause hyper vigilance with feelings of being unsafe. This can lead to anxiety. Be aware of your reactions and remain open to trying new things.

Fear

Chronic fear can be a symptom of racial trauma leading to anxiety and depression. Be aware that without treatment, the anxiety and depression borne from PTSD risks transforming into anger. 

Rage

Rage borne out of retraumatization can simmer quietly in your body resulting in over reactions and outbursts impacting on your physical health. Be mindful of this intense emotion and seek out help if it gets too overwhelming. Take deep breaths in and longer breadths out as you allow to let go of what doesn’t serve you well.  

Social Isolation and Avoidance

The continual seeing of traumatic images over time can make you numb. It is a body’s way of protecting you from distress but it can lead to constricting and stifling of emotions making you unable to connect and relate to others. When you are feeling overwhelmed by social media overload, remember that you have the choice to switch off. Connect with your ‘happy distraction’ that can be a walk in the park or hanging out with a friend. 

Self-care is not indulgence

According to Trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk MD “Most people who suffer from trauma are used to living ‘from the neck up.” Connecting with body and breadth through activities as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and gym workout can be useful when faced with retraumatization.

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